American History · mental health

Bryce Hospital tour went well


I had been telling the students enrolled in my “Antebellum America” course all semester about what it is like to stand in the dome at the top of Bryce Hospital. Here, Landon Garland, a University of Alabama President, and his wife, Louisa, stood in April 1865 as Union soldiers approached Tuscaloosa, intending to burn down UA’s campus.IMG_7577.JPG

Although the door leading to the tower was locked, Steve Davis, Historian for Bryce Hospital, was able to get the door open with some assistance. We cheered. Up the stairs we went to take in the sights of the city, but to also reflect on our shared past. That past converges with contemporary structures of note on our campus.


One can see Bryant-Denny Stadium where our football team plays its home games if you look outside the window used by Louisa to see the soldiers torching the university’s library and the mansion in which she lived with her husband. She reportedly ran across campus to get them to put out the mansion fire.

Steve Davis, Bryce Hospital Historian, pointing toward the Black Warrior River. Union soldiers crossed that river in 1865 with plans to burn down UA’s campus.
Bryant-Denny Stadium is seen in the distance from the same window Louisa Garland used to see the Union attempting to burn down the President’s Mansion.

During our tour, the sun set early. It was getting dark inside of a building that is reportedly haunted. Because of this, we departed before completing our reflections on Peter Bryce, the first superintendent of a dwelling that was named Alabama State Hospital for the Insane when it opened in 1861. Although a native of South Carolina, Bryce steered clear of sectional politics. Prior to his appointment as superintendent when he was 26 years old, he studied at the Citadel and traveled to Europe to learn about mental health. Upon his return, he continued learning in New Jersey and eventually oversaw the hospital that was nationally known for treating its patients without handcuffs and strait jackets. After his death in 1892, the hospital’s reputation changed. Millions would be spent by the seventies to address legal challenges to its poor conditions. IMG_7586.JPG

Davis explaining the building’s history on the porch used by Peter Bryce’s wife. From here she could see some of the spacious land owned by the facility. University buildings are now on much of that land.

Since the property was sold to the University in 2010 and the patients were moved to a new facility, the long-term plan has been to renovate the building to make room for a performing arts center, classrooms and a museum.

I sure hope we all get to see such a transformation. There is so much rich history in this dwelling and the people who walked through its doors. Among the issues worth addressing are the experiences of 19th century activist Dorothea Dix who suggested Bryce as the hospital’s first leader.

1868 photo of Dorothea Dix, 19th century social reformer who was committed to a “moral” treatment of mentally ill patients. Courtesy of Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington, D.C.

She joins other area women, among them, Amelia Gorgas, who became UA’s librarian, postmistress and nurse, after her husband’s postbellum arrival here and brief tenure as UA’s President.

How do we find meaning in their experiences and the women who populated the hospital after the men in their lives returned home from the war?

Or the young women who attended the several female academies that opened in the area long before the war?

Or the coeds who lived in a nearby recently demolished house when the university began accepting women in 1893?

Or scores of enslaved people including a woman who was Bryce’s ninth patient? Indeed, the students are invited to think through Bryce’s politics and those of New York state-native Nathaniel Kenyon Jr., a Union Lt. Col.  with the 11th Ill. Infantry, Co. K who was captured at the 1862 Battle of Ft. Donelson. He was briefly housed in a prison in downtown Tuscaloosa.

Who was the “negro” woman from whom Kenyon wanted to buy pies? Was she free? Enslaved? How do her experiences encounter those of other women of African descent in Tuscaloosa during the war?

Words from the Lord’s Prayer in Bryce’s chapel.

There may be many questions to which we have no answers. In merely asking the question, we are able to unflatten well told stories while still seeing the horrors (and triumphs) of a particular era and later ones. I am still thinking about the Old Bryce complex in Northport where African American patients later lived during the Jim Crow period. It is named for planter/businessman/slaveholder Robert Jemison Jr. who worked closely with Horace King, an African American bridge builder, to help usher Alabama into modernity.


Before we departed, the students were able to sign their names in the tower, joining earlier visitors, among them, prominent men including one who was a relative of J.T. Searcy, another former hospital superintendent.IMG_7597

Next week, they take their second exam, which requires them to make ties between antebellum history and the characters and plot of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, a sci-fi novel set in both the antebellum period and 1976. On December 5, the students will share their discoveries about our shared past via brief presentations. I have enjoyed their openness to learning in and outside of the classroom and look forward to seeing their good performance continue. We have at least one student graduating in December. Can’t wait to see where they all end up. As true of earlier classes, this is a great group.

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